Rising from Ashes
BY SANUJ HATHURUSINGHE
Out of all the adversities Mother Nature has to endure, the most impactful and damaging has to be human activities. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, there has been an exponential growth in harmful human activity that has gravely affected nature and over a century later, our resources have dwindled fast. A report, contributed 1,360 scientists from 95 countries and published by Royal Society in London in 2005, warned that two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure.
While these activities are rewarding for humans, the brunt of the adverse effects are suffered by the environment, especially, the flora and fauna. It is believed that these human activities are forcing plant and animal species to go extinct. Extinction has been a natural part of our world’s history. More than 99 per cent out of 4 billion that have evolved in planet Earth are now gone and according to the statistics of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List at least 900 species have gone extinct in the last five centuries. The IUCN data reveals that in the year 2020, at least 15 species have gone extinct.
What causes extinction?
Considering what is believed to have happened to dinosaurs many believe that asteroid strikes cause extinction and they are not wrong. It is believed that many of the Earth’s mass extinctions are caused by such impact events. Mass starvation, invasive species, lack of genetic diversity, being unable to compete with other betteradopting species, and diseases are some of the causes of extinction but there are other causes that are influenced by human activities such as habitat loss, human predation, and pollution.
How is extinction determined?
For decades, IUCN – the oldest and largest global environmental union – operated under the rule that if a species hasn’t been spotted for 50 years, it may be declared extinct. However, this created some practical issues such as giving false hopes for alreadyextinct species and slowing down urgent conservation efforts. In the 1990s the rules were changed and today, a species can only be listed as extinct if there is, “No reasonable doubt that the last individual member has died.” According to conservation scientist Prof. Stuart Pimm, the cardinal rule of classifying animals as extinct is to remember the lessons of Shakespeare. Romeo was too quick to judge Juliet had died so he took his own life. After waking up and seeing lifeless Romeo Juliet too took her own life. Prof. Pimm urges conservationists to not be in a hurry to declare a species extinct because it can discourage people who are trying to protect the species, eventually leading to actual extinction.
Can extinction be reversed?
However, there also have been incidents where an animal thought to have gone extinct making an appearance again, after years and sometimes, decades. Sometimes this is down to the extreme rarity and elusiveness of the species or because of tireless conservation efforts of environmentalists. Sometimes, a species is declared extinct from the wild but still be found in captive. Conservationists then take measures to breed and slowly introduce the animals into the wilderness back again. These species which are assumed to be extinct but later rediscovered are called Lazarus species and here are a few examples of animals who have come back from the dead.
Also known as the Somali Sengi, the Elephant Shrew is a mousesized animal that has a distinctive elongated nose, much like a trunk of an elephant and hence, the name. It was spotted for the last time over 50 years ago and after that, it was assumed the Elephant Shrew has become extinct. Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) had even listed it as 25 of their ‘most wanted’ species after such an absence of sightings. However, in a scientific study published on science journal Peer J: Life and Environment in August 2020 it was revealed that these tiny, odd-looking creatures are alive and well, and thriving in Djibouti and across the horn of Africa.
The Terror Skink gets the rather intimidating adjective in its name courtesy its mouthful of rapacious teeth (elongated, curved, and sharp). The animal was discovered in 1872 by the French Botanist Benjamin Balansa who noted the unique skink while visiting the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia. He recorded the sighting of the 50-centimetre long lizard but it was never seen again until 2003 when scientists rediscovered the Terror Skink again. Further research about the unique skink are now underway.
Venom is common among reptiles but there are a few rare cases of venomous mammals. The Cuban Solenodon is one such rare case, a missing case for the longest until it was spotted again by a group of Japanese and Cuban researchers in 2012 after a decade-long study. Although it possesses venomous bite, the Cuban Solenodon lacks the strength and dexterity to defend itself or flee from danger which makes it an easy target for predators. The scientists regard the Cuban Solenodon as a ‘living fossil’ since it hasn’t evolved much in millions of years.
If anything the history of extinctions suggests, that it is not very kind on flightless birds. The Dodo and Moa had to suffer extinction because they couldn’t fly away from it and for many years the scientists have thought the Takahe had also suffered the same fate. These multi-coloured flightless birds that is of ‘rail’ family used to roam modern-day New Zealand but was pronounces ‘dead’ in the 1898 due to predation, hunting, and habitat loss. But was discovered high in the Murchison Mountains a full 50 years later. Takahe is a success story of New Zealand’s persistent conservation efforts and the unique endangered species programme. The flightless bird has now spread to seven islands and several mainland locations.
The large-eyed, loris-looking, nocturnal primate was thought to have gone extinct in as back as 1920s but the scientists were given a ray of hope for rediscovery when the corpses of a Pygmy Tarsier was found in a mousetrap in Indonesia. After a continuous research that ran for eight years, scientists finally rediscovered the Pygmy Tarsier living in the mountains of Sulawesi. They are extremely sensitive and there is much the scientists still don’t know about the Pygmy Tarsier. The small, insectivorous mammals are commonly compared to Furbies, Yoda and even gremlins from Gremlins and is famous to respond to distress in captivity by attempting suicide by banging their heads against bars or cages.
Small, cute, and patient steeds ideal for first-time riders, Caspian Horse was thought to be extinct for many years. However, the rediscovery of the elusive horse was done by not a group of scientists but an American woman named Louise Laylin. In 1957 Laylin married a Persian prince and moved to Iran. Coming from a horse-breeding family Laylin wanted to start a riding school for children in Teheran but found the local horse to be skittish and hostile for kids. After hearing about the semi-mythical, thought-to-be-extinct creature, Laylin set off to remote Caspian Mountains in search of one and came back with three. Today, Caspian horses are living in many parts of the world including USA, U.K., and Australia.
Coelacanth has to be the animal that has been extinct for the longest. The creature which was believed to have lived with dinosaurs according to fossil data was rediscovered after 66 million years since its estimated extinction by a fisherman who was fishing off the coast of South Africa in 1938. The nocturnal, deep-sea dweller seemingly has not changes much and looks as prehistoric as it can get. Despite the rediscovery, they are listed ‘Critically Endangered’ and thought to frequent underwater caves in the Indian Ocean.